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Friday, January 21st Discussion

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  • Andrew Breese
    SD Futurists has a lot to talk about this month! We ll open with an opportunity for sharing your recent short thoughts (stimulated by movies, science news,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 10, 2005
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      SD Futurists has a lot to talk about this month!

      We'll open with an opportunity for sharing your recent short thoughts
      (stimulated by movies, science news, Cosmo, Car & Driver, whatever...a
      multiperspectival mindset can find inspiration from any source!), and then
      segue into this main event:

      Friday, January 21st @ 7PM, Barnes & Noble of Mira Mesa, special area
      toward front of store.
      Presenter/Moderator: Andrew Breese

      Edge.org annually composes a provocative open-ended question for about 1000
      of the...edgiest...thinkers in the world (thinkers who are "scientists and
      other empiricists who, through their work and expository writing, are taking
      the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper
      meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.") & then publishes
      many responses.

      This very week, they published this year's batch. The NYT, Arts & Letters
      Daily, leading science/econ bloggers, and other opinion leaders rightly
      applaud the insights & stimulating speculations.

      At least two SD Futurists independently found ourselves so drawn in that
      we've each now looked at them all.

      I'm excited about focusing our January meeting around considering many of

      The Question: "Great minds sometimes guess the truth before they have either
      the evidence or arguments for it (Diderot called it having the 'esprit de
      divination'). What do YOU believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

      I've carefully arranged the passages I judge clearly worth our consideration
      (though I don't think they're all on the right track; for one, they often
      contradict each other!) in an order I find especially evocative. I'll expect
      you to have at least skimmed over them here in e-mail at your leisure -- and
      ideally to have printed yourself a copy for the meeting...

      JOHN R. SKOYLES (neuroscience researcher, author): We've evolved a range of
      capacities for fighting disease and recovering from injury, including a
      variety of 'sickness behaviors'. Most "illness" is the body's response
      [(self-defense)]. A rise in body temperature, for example, kills many
      bacteria and changes the membrane properties of cells so viruses cannot
      replicate. The pain of a broken bone [exists to make you] let it heal or
      rest. Nature supplied our bodies in this way with a first-aid kit; but,
      unfortunately like many medicines, bodies' "treatments" are unpleasant [and
      also often life-threateningly costly]. Evolution therefore has put these
      responses under some control from our minds. [This is mostly how placebos &
      witch doctors work, and maybe much of how even our doctor visits work!]

      DONALD HOFFMAN (cognitive scientist, author): The world of our daily
      experience-the world of tables, chairs, stars and people, with their
      attendant shapes, smells, feels and sounds-is a species-specific user
      interface to a realm far more complex. Evolutionary pressures dictate that
      our species-specific interface, this world of our daily experience, should
      itself be a radical simplification, selected not for the exhaustive
      depiction of truth but for the mutable pragmatics of survival. Consciousness
      is a fundamental. The mind-body problem will be to physicalist ontology what
      black-body radiation was to classical mechanics: first a goad to its heroic
      defense, later the provenance of its final supersession.

      MARTIN NOWAK (biological mathematician): Cooperation and language define
      humanity. Every special trait of humans is derivative of language.

      MARC D. HAUSER (psychologist, author): What makes humans uniquely smart?
      Here's my best guess: we alone evolved a simple computational trick with far
      reaching implications for every aspect of our life, from language and
      mathematics to art, music and morality. The trick: the capacity to take as
      input any set of discrete entities and recombine them into an infinite
      variety of meaningful expressions.

      Thus, we take meaningless phonemes and combine them into words, words into
      phrases, and phrases into Shakespeare. We take meaningless strokes of paint
      and combine them into shapes, shapes into flowers, and flowers into
      Matisse's water lilies. And we take meaningless actions and combine them
      into action sequences, sequences into events, and events into homicide and
      heroic rescues. [...] open ended systems of expression.

      ESTHER DYSON (editor of Release 1.0; Trustee, Long Now Foundation; author):
      We're living longer, and thinking shorter. Businesses focus on short-term
      results; politicians focus on elections; school systems focus on test
      results; most of us focus on the weather rather than the climate. Everyone
      knows about big problems, but their behavior focuses on the here and now.
      "Mental diabetes": We're living in an information-rich, time-compressed
      environment that often seems to replace imagination rather than stimulate
      it. I posit that being fed so much processed information-video, audio,
      images, flashing screens, talking toys, simulated action games-is akin to
      being fed too much processed, sugar-rich food. It may seriously mess the
      information metabolism and our ability to process information for
      themselves. How do we stay motivated to discern cause and effect, to put
      together a coherent story line, to think scientifically?

      DAVID GELERNTER (computer scientist; Chief Scientist, Mirror Worlds
      Technologies; author): We will soon understand the physiological basis of
      the "cognitive spectrum," from the bright violet of tightly-focused analytic
      thought all the way down to the long, slow red of low-focus sleep
      thought-also known as "dreaming." We'll understand why we can't force
      ourselves to fall asleep or to "be creative"-and how those two facts are
      related. They'll understand why so many people report being most creative
      while driving, shaving or doing some other activity that keeps the mind's
      foreground occupied and lets it approach open problems in a "low focus" way.
      In short, they'll understand the mind as an integrated dynamic process that
      changes over a day and a lifetime, but is characterized always by one
      continuous spectrum. You trace out some version of the spectrum every day.
      You're most capable of analysis when you are most awake. As you grow less
      wide-awake, your thinking grows more concrete. As you start to fall asleep,
      you begin to free associate. (Cognitive psychologists have known for years
      that you begin to dream before you fall asleep.) We know also that to grow
      up intellectually means to trace out the cognitive spectrum in reverse:
      infants and children think concretely; as they grow up, they're increasingly
      capable of analysis. (Not incidentally, newborns spend nearly all their time

      JARON LANIER (musician, computer scientist): While we're confessing
      unprovable beliefs, here's another one: The study of the genetic components
      of pecking order behavior, group belief cues, and clan identification
      leading to inter-clan hostility will be the core of psychology and sociology
      for the next few generations, and it will turn out we can't turn off or
      control these elements of human character without losing other qualities we
      love, like creativity. If this dark guess is correct, then the means to
      survival is to create societies with a huge variety of paths to success and
      a multitude of overlapping, intertwined clans and pecking orders, so that
      everyone can be a winner from equally valid individual perspectives. When
      the American experiment has worked best, it has approximated this level of
      variety. Virtual worlds of post-symbolic communication could provide the
      highest level of variety to satisfy the dangerous psychic inheritance I'm
      guessing we suffer as a species.

      ALEX (SANDY) PENTLAND (computer scientist): Together with my research group
      I have built a computer system that objectively measures a set of
      non-linguistic social signals, such as engagement, mirroring, activity, and
      stress, by looking at 'tone of voice' over one minute time periods. [From
      just that data,] we accurately predict the outcomes of salary negotiations,
      dating decisions, hiring preferences, empathy perceptions & and interest
      ratings. Even for lengthy interactions, we make accurate predictions by
      observing only the initial few minutes of interaction, even though the
      linguistic content of such 'thin slices' of the behavior have very little
      predictive power. [I surmise that] a very large proportion of our behavior
      is determined by unconscious social signaling, which sets the context, risk,
      and reward structure within which traditional cognitive processes proceed -
      [something I've started thinking of as a] Tribe Mind[!].

      More JARON LANIER (musician, computer scientist): I believe the potential
      for expanded communication between people far exceeds the potential both of
      language as we think of it (the stuff we say, read and write) and of all the
      other communication forms we already use. Suppose for a moment that
      children in the future will grow up with an easy and intimate virtual
      reality technology and that their use of it will become focused on invention
      and design instead of the consumption of pre-created holo-video games,
      surround movies, or other content. Maybe these future children will play
      virtual musical instrument-like things that cause simulated trees and
      spiders and seasons and odors and ecologies to spring up just as
      manipulating a pencil causes words to appear on a page. If people grew up
      with a virtuosic ability to improvise the contents of a shared virtual
      world, a new sort of communication might also appear. It's barely possible
      to imagine what a "reality conversation" would be like. Each person would be
      changing the shared world at the speed of language, all at once, an image
      that suggests chaos, but often there would be a coherence, which would
      indicate meaning. A kid becomes a monster, eats his little brother, who
      becomes a vitriolic turd, and so on. This is what I've called "post-symbolic
      communication," though really it won't exist in isolation of or in
      opposition to symbolic communication techniques. It will be something
      different, however, and will expand what people can mean to each other.
      Post-symbolic communication will be like a shared, waking state, intentional
      dream. Instead of the word "house", you will express a particular house and
      be able to walk into it, and instead of the category "house" you will peer
      into an apparently small bucket that is big enough inside to hold all the
      universe's houses so you can assess what they have in common directly. It
      will be a fluid form of experiential concreteness providing similar but
      divergent expressive power to that of abstraction. Why care? The acquisition
      of post-symbolic communication will be a centuries-long adventure, an
      expansion of meaning, something beautiful, and a way to seek cool, advanced
      technology that focuses on connection instead of mere power. It will be a
      form of beauty which also enhances survivability; Since the drive for "cool
      tech" is unstoppable, the invention of provocative cool tech that is lovely
      enough to seduce the attention of young smart men away from arms races is a
      prerequisite to the survival of the species. Some of the examples above
      (houses, spiders) are of people improvising the external environment, but
      post-symbolic communication might typically look a lot more like people
      morphing themselves into varied forms. Experiments have already been
      conducted with kids wearing special body suits and goggles "turning into"
      triangles to learn trigonometry, or molecules to learn chemistry. It's not
      only the narcissism of the young (and not so young) human mind or the
      primality of the control of one's own body that makes self-transformation
      compelling. Evolution, as generous as she ended up being with us humans, was
      stingy with potential means of expression. Compare us with the mimic octopus
      which can morph into all sorts of creatures and objects, and can animate its
      skin. An advanced civilization of cephalopods might develop words as we know
      them, but probably only as an adjunct to a natural form of post-symbolic
      communication. We humans can control precious little of the world with
      enough agility to keep up with our thoughts and feelings. The fingers and
      the tongue are the about it. Symbols as we know them in language are a
      trick, or what programmers call a "hack," that expands the power of little
      appendage wiggles to refer to all that we can't instantly become or create.
      Another belief: The tongue that can speak could also someday control
      fantastic forms beyond our current imaginings. (Some early experiments along
      these lines have been done, using ultrasound sensing through the cheek. and
      the results are at least not terrible.)

      NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB (mathematical trader, author): We are good at fitting
      explanations to the past, all the while living under mere illusion of
      understanding the dynamics of history. We severely overestimate knowledge in
      what I call the "ex post" historical disciplines, meaning almost all of
      social science (economics, sociology, political science) and the humanities,
      everything that depends on the non-experimental analysis of past data. I am
      convinced that these disciplines do not provide much understanding of the
      world or even their own subject matter; they mostly fit a nice sounding
      narrative that caters to our desire (even need) to have a story. You do not
      gain by reading the newspapers, history books, analyses and economic
      reports; you get a misplaced confidence about what you know. The difference
      between a cab driver and a history professor is [mostly] that the latter can
      express himself in a better way.

      The evidence can only be seen in the disciplines that offer both
      quantitative data and quantitative predictions by the experts, such as
      economics. Economics and finance are an empiricist's dream as we have a
      goldmine of data for such testing. In addition there are plenty of
      "experts", many of whom make more than a million a year, who provide
      forecasts and publish them for the benefits of their clients. Just check
      their forecasts against what happens after. Their projections fare hardly
      better than random, meaning that their "stories" are convincing, beautiful
      to listen to, but do not seem to help you more than listening to, say, a
      Chicago cab driver. This extends to inflation, growth, interest rates,
      balance of payment, etc. (While someone may argue that their forecasts might
      impact these variables, the mechanism of "self-canceling prophecy" can be
      taken into account). Now consider that we depend on these people for
      governmental economic policy!

      This implies that whether or not you read the newspapers will not make the
      slightest difference to your understanding of what can happen in the economy
      or the markets. Impressive tests on the effect of the news on prices were
      done by the financial empiricist Victor Niederhoffer in the 60s and repeated
      throughout with the same results.

      If you look closely at the data to check the reasons of this inability to
      see things coming, you will find that these people tend to guess the regular
      events (though quite poorly); but they miss on the large deviations, these "
      unusual" events that carry large impacts. These outliers have a
      disproportionately large contribution to the total effect.

      Now I am convinced, yet cannot prove it quantitatively, that such
      overestimation can be generalized to anything where people give you a
      narrative-style story from past information, without experimentation. The
      difference is that the economists got caught because we have data (and
      techniques to check the quality of their knowledge) and historians, news
      analysts, biographers, and "pundits" can hide a little longer. Basically
      historians might get a small trend here and there, but they did miss on the
      big events of the past centuries and, I am convinced, will not see much
      coming in the future. It was said: "the wise see things coming". To me the
      wise persons are the ones who know that they can't see things coming.

      ROBERT R. PROVINE (psychologist, neuroscientist, author): We overestimate
      the conscious control of behavior. We are misled by an inner voice that
      generates a reasonable but often fallacious narrative and explanation of our
      actions. The beam of conscious awareness that illuminates our actions is on
      only part of the time. Since we are not conscious of our state of
      unconsciousness, we vastly overestimate the amount of time that we are aware
      of our own actions, whatever their cause.

      ROGER SCHANK (psychologist, computer scientist, author): I do not believe
      that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making
      decisions in their own lives. People believe that are behaving rationally
      and have thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are
      made-who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue, what college to
      attend, people's minds simply cannot cope with the complexity. When they try
      to rationally analyze potential options, their unconscious, emotional
      thoughts take over and make the choice for them. We do not know how we
      decide things, and in a sense we don't really care. Decisions are made for
      us by our unconscious, the conscious is in charge of making up reasons for
      those decisions which sound rational. We can, on the other hand, think
      rationally about the choices that other people make. We can do this because
      we do not know and are not trying to satisfy unconscious needs and childhood
      fantasies. As for making good decisions in our lives, when we do it is
      mostly random. We are always operating with too little information
      consciously and way too much unconsciously.

      Yet more JARON LANIER (musician, computer scientist): Implicit in the
      futures I am imagining here is a solution to the software crisis. If
      children are breathing out fully realized creatures and skies just as they
      form sentences today, there must be software present which isn't crashing
      and is marvelously flexible and responsive, yet free of limiting
      pre-conceptions, which would revive symbolism. Can such software exist? Ah!
      Another belief! My guess is it can exist, but not anytime soon. The only two
      good examples of software we have at this time are evolution and the brain,
      and they both are quite good, so why not be encouraged?

      JUDITH RICH HARRIS (developmental psychologist, author): I believe, though I
      cannot prove it, that three-not two-selection processes were involved in
      human evolution. The first two are familiar: natural selection, which
      selects for fitness, and sexual selection, which selects for sexiness. The
      third process selects for beauty, but not sexual beauty-not adult beauty.
      The ones doing the selecting weren't potential mates: they were parents.
      Parental selection, I call it. What gave me the idea was a passage from a
      book titled Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, by the anthropologist
      Marjorie Shostak. Nisa was about fifty years old when she recounted to
      Shostak, in remarkable detail, the story of her life as a member of a
      hunter-gatherer group.

      One of the incidents described by Nisa occurred when she was a child. She
      had a brother named Kumsa, about four years younger than herself. When Kumsa
      was around three, and still nursing, their mother realized she was pregnant
      again. She explained to Nisa that she was planning to "kill"-that is,
      abandon at birth-the new baby, so that Kumsa could continue to nurse. But
      when the baby was born, Nisa's mother had a change of heart. "I don't want
      to kill her," she told Nisa. "This little girl is too beautiful. See how
      lovely and fair her skin is?" [Here, culture could most directly &
      immediately affect genetic evolution.]

      Coupled with sexual selection, parental selection could have produced
      certain kinds of evolutionary changes very quickly, even if the
      heartbreaking decision of whether to rear or abandon a newborn was made in
      only a small percentage of births. The characteristics that could be
      affected by parental selection would have to be apparent even in a newborn
      baby. Two such characteristics are skin color and hairiness.

      W. DANIEL HILLIS (physicist, computer scientist, author; Chairman, Applied
      Minds, Inc.): I know that it sounds corny, but I believe that people are
      getting better. In other words, I believe in moral progress. People will get
      more empathetic and more altruistic than we are. They will trust each other
      more, and for good reason. They will take better care of each other. They be
      more thoughtful about the broader consequences of their actions. They will
      take better care of their future than we do of ours.

      GREGORY BENFORD (physicist, author): Why is there scientific law at all?
      What constrains the nature of physical law? Evolution gave us our ornately
      structured biosphere, and perhaps a similar principle operates in selecting
      universes. Perhaps our universe arises, then, from selection for
      intelligences that can make fresh universes, perhaps in high energy physics
      experiments. Or near black holes (as Lee Smiolin supposed), where space-time
      gets contorted into plastic forms that can make new space-times. Then an
      Ur-universe that had intelligence could make others, and this reproduction
      with perhaps slight variation "genetics" drives the evolution of physical
      law. Selection arises because if firm laws yield [better] conditions to form
      new intelligent life. Once very advanced life forms realize this, they could
      intentionally make more smart universes with the right, fixed laws, to
      produce ever more grand structures. There might be observable consequences
      of this prior evolution: If so, then we are an inevitable consequence of the
      universe, mirroring intelligences that have come before, in some earlier
      universe that deliberately chose to create more sustainable order. The
      fitness of our cosmic environment is then no accident. If we find evidence
      of fine-tuning, then, [it would be] evidence for such evolution.

      RUPERT SHELDRAKE (biologist, author): Memory is inherent in nature. Most of
      the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. There is no need to
      suppose that all the laws of nature sprang into being fully formed at the
      moment of the Big Bang, like a kind of cosmic Napoleonic code, or that they
      exist in a metaphysical realm beyond time and space. Before the general
      acceptance of the Big Bang theory in the 1960s, eternal laws seemed to make
      sense. The universe itself was thought to be eternal and evolution was
      confined to the biological realm. But we now live in a radically
      evolutionary universe. The natural selection of habits will play an
      essential part in any integrated theory of evolution.

      JONATHAN HAIDT (psychologist) : I believe that religious experience and
      practice is generated and structured largely by a few emotions that evolved
      for other reasons, particularly awe, moral elevation, disgust, and
      attachment-related emotions. That's not a prediction likely to raise any
      eyebrows in this forum. But I further believe that hostility toward religion
      is an obstacle to progress in psychology. Most human beings live in a world
      full of magic, miracles, saints, and constant commerce with divinity.
      Psychology at present has little to say about these parts of life. If
      psychologists took religious experience seriously and tried to understand it
      from the inside, as anthropologists do with other cultures, I believe it
      would enrich our science. I have found religious texts and testimonials
      about purity and pollution essential for understanding the emotion of

      KAI KRAUSE (Software: Concepts, Artwork & Interface Design): I always felt,
      but can't prove outright: Zen is wrong. Then is right. Everything is not
      about the now, as in the "here and how", "living for the moment". On the
      contrary: I believe everything is about the before then and the back then.
      It is about the anticipation of the moment and the memory of the moment, but
      not the moment. Make plans and take pictures. I have no way of proving such
      a lofty philosophical theory, but I greatly anticipate the moment that I
      might... and once I have done it, I will, most certainly, never forget.

      Whew. So much delicious thought food! I look forward to saying more.

      Parking Tip: You'll find it easiest to park in the other shopping center
      (because it doesn't have a movie theater!), by the Rubio's & Jamba through
      down toward the Home Depot.
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